Ethics statement examples - ESRC


China goes global: A comparative study of Chinese hydropower dams in Africa and Asia

The project, led by Dr Frauke Urban, aims to provide the first systematic and comparative analysis of the social, economic, environmental and political impacts of Chinese dam projects in low and middle income countries that will inform corporate behaviour in the UK and China and shape emerging national and international policy responses. The project will involve detailed empirical research in Ghana, Nigeria, Cambodia and Malaysia, which represent different facets of China’s hydropower in the global South.

This research aims to address four key issues:

  • coordination of Chinese investment strategies regarding low and middle income countries
  • impacts on local social and environmental conditions in recipient countries
  • effects on local and regional governance
  • implications for both UK firms and OECD aid programmes.

To address these key issues we will conduct four case studies in Africa and Asia where Chinese hydropower activity is most intense. The selected case study sites are the Kamchay Dam in Cambodia, the Bakun Dam in Malaysia (Borneo), the Bui Dam in Ghana, and the Zamfara Dam in Nigeria.

We will also conduct a wide range of in-depth interviews with Chinese firms, financiers, policymakers, African/Asian policymakers, Asian/African communities, NGOs, UK firms and international aid organisations and evaluate project documentation, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies and firm strategies.

Ethics statement submitted as part of the Je-S proposal

The ethical issues cover two distinct categories of participants – those who are powerful and hold confidential information, and those who are vulnerable. Both are ‘sensitive’ as defined by the ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics and the research is informed by the ESRC’s principles and the specific issues surrounding developing world research (Brown et al 2004), particularly integrity, honesty, confidentiality, voluntary participation, impartiality and the avoidance of risk.

For the first group – including business leaders, officials, and engineers – confidentiality will be maintained stringently throughout the research and we will not proceed until the full, voluntary and informed consent of the subjects has been obtained. A consent form has been drafted and will be translated into local languages. We view consent as a process and not a one-off event meaning that participants can withdraw from the research at any stage. Key informants will have the opportunity to view and approve interview transcripts. We will pseudonymise our materials where necessary and all data will be securely held. Only the PI will have access to the codes that link transcripts to respondents.

The vulnerability of the second group – largely comprising dam-affected communities – comes from their relative poverty and political marginalisation. Many suffer acute poverty and are used to political systems which scrutinise and suppress their opinions. Hence, they may be wary about participating in research on a sensitive social and political subject so we must not only be responsive to the cultural positioning of the researchers vis-à-vis these groups (Cupples and Kindon 2003), but ensure their anonymity in data collection. By using local research teams we also hope to minimise the social distance between researchers and researched (Mohan 1999).

To address these issues we follow the guidelines of the Royal Geographical Society’s Developing Areas Research Group (RGS-DARG). Additionally, an application for ethical approval will be made to SOAS’s Ethics Committee. We also aim to give full consideration to the secondary use of any datasets, as we intend to share any qualitative data with the ESDS Qualidata Archives at the University of Essex. We will protect the identities of our respondents in discussions, presentations and data sets.

In terms of responsibility to academic colleagues in Africa and Asia we are aware that much research in the developing world is characterised by inequalities in the opportunities for and means of undertaking research. The Developing Areas Research Group(RGS-DARG) advises its members to use research “as a means of reducing these inequalities wherever possible and practicable”. Our work seeks to build partnerships with institutions and individuals at the national level in these regions. This should lead to joint publications in local as well as international outlets and we aim to ensure these are available in local languages.

The final issue concerns collaboration with Chinese researchers. Some researchers have argued that working with academic institutions in countries with dubious human rights records is to be complicit in these abuses (Cong 2004, Reporters without Borders). Academic boycotts become a means of pressurising governments to respect certain international norms of freedom and justice. While sympathetic we follow Nussbaum’s (2007) argument that countries are not monolithic (Svensson 2006) so that blanket boycotts can further marginalise those voices that are calling for change. The Chinese academics we are working with are precisely those who have critical and independent approaches to the role of China in world events. By collaborating with them we will contribute to a greater awareness about the positive as well as the negative impacts of Chinese institutions domestically and overseas.

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Last updated: 13 April 2022

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